Vesterålen and Lofoten at 50mm

As a slightly mad experiment I took only a single normal lens for our two-week road-trip in Norway last summer. This is definitely not the standard choice for landscape photography, but I wanted to do something different than usual. And for the touristy (Instagram) shots I had my trusty iPhone Pro with me anyway. This phone is actually the main reason why I tend to do less and less photography with “a real camera” – it simply takes too good photos, which makes carrying a heavier camera and the related equipment (bags, lenses, tripod, filters, etc.) less attractive lately.

I think being able to let go of the idea of always taking the perfect photo with the best equipment in all circumstances really helped me over the past months to build a healthier mindset for myself, where taking a nice picture with my “real camera” is not a requirement for me to be happy anymore. If I find a nice shot I am happy to take it, but if I don’t, I will still have a great time. And photos with my phone will still make great memories. Long story short, I had a bit of time and I was in the mood for actually processing a small(er) selection of the photos from above the arctic circle, which can be seen in the gallery below. All taken with a Fujifilm X-T3 camera and a Fujifilm XF 33mm f/1.4 R LM WR lens (50mm equivalent FOV on full frame).

Beyond the PPL: EASA Night Rating

To become night rated (at least in the EASA countries in Europe), one must follow theoretical knowledge instruction, and have at least 5 hours of flight time in the appropriate aircraft category at night, including at least 3 hours of dual instruction, including at least 1 hour of cross-country navigation with at least one dual cross-country flight of at least 50 km (27 NM) and 5 solo take-offs and 5 solo full-stop landings.

After sitting through five hours of theoretical briefing, I had an additional one-hour simulator session to go over some basic instrument flying principles in a controlled environment, including – for example – recovery from unusual attitudes in IFR conditions without external visual references, and some more advanced VOR flying. Nothing special if you remember what you did during your PPL training, especially when you have some flight simulator experience under your belt.

Since that went very well, we immediately proceeded with flying patterns at night at Charleroi over two consecutive evenings, which is the main topic of the first video. During the first flight, we covered the differences in ground procedures (especially checking that all lights are operational), the night landing, and some emergencies with stress on unusual runway and aircraft light configurations/availability. I will quickly go through these, but I have to apologise for the video quality, as recording at night is not easy, and the necessary longer exposure times do not play well with the airframe vibrations (by the time of the 2nd flight I decided to hang the camera from the canopy again, which proved to be a more stable platform).

Fast forward to the second flight, we started with one more circuit to cover the one remaining special situation: landing without instrument lights – this is the main reason why you must always have a flashlight (for each crew member) available in the cockpit. Then I went on to complete the solo requirements of the night rating. There was a significant crosswind, but it helped a lot that I had the track also displayed on the HSI thanks to the digital Garmin (GI 275) instruments which are available in the two new planes (OO-NCE and OO-NCF) that I have flown with during these flights.

The third night out of the NVFR training meant that it was time to leave the safe haven of Charleroi, and do our first navigation in the dark. The original plan was flying VOR to VOR across the TMA of Brussles, but we somehow missed a NOTAM which meant that this was not possible, so we had to improvise (OK, not really, as we discussed a Plan B in advance already) a flight to Liège instead, involving an undeniably cool low pass, following the longest straight-in approach (until the following flight) of my short flying carrier.

It was a very cold flight in freezing conditions, with an unusually high amount of time-sharing, meaning that while I was flying, my instructor was often on radio-duty. I wish the GoPro cameras were more sensitive in the dark, in real life this flight looked so much better than on video, with very good visibility all around us. Note: the light levels in these videos approximate quite well how things look and feel in real life, but they cannot show the dimmest details which are still perceivable with the naked eye. The airport at night is in general a dark place, but the general feeling of visibility – especially at altitude – is better in real life.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve the weather Gods surprised me with a perfectly clear evening, so it was time to fly the remaining 1.6 hours of the night rating. I prepared two complete navigations, so we could choose on the spot from these options according to the weather conditions. Plan A was slightly shorter, but it headed into France to LFAV and would have included some experience with Pilot Controlled Lights (PCL), which I even specially requested to be available for the night, while Plan B was a pretty straightforward VOR to VOR navigation in the TMA and CTA of Brussels, staying in controlled airspace for 100% of the flight (so still resulting in some new experience).

On the evening of the flight the weather forecast suggested a 30-40% chance of a low broken cloud layer to the Southwest, so we cancelled our PCL request (because flying to an airfield with a good chance of not being able to land is a bit silly) and filed the flight plan for the VOR bonanza around Brussels. I love flying with VOR stations anyway – if you have watched my previous videos, chances are that you know this already.

We started the engine just when the civil twilight ended (this is when the aviation night starts), so we could still enjoy some post-sunset colours over the Western horizon during and shortly after departure, with the crescent Moon taking center stage on the celestial canvas. The flight itself was pretty straightforward and uneventful (which is not a bad thing in aviation), this time I did all the talking too unlike during the first night navigation, so now I am not afraid of the TMA controllers either anymore :D On the other hand we (or rather I) have somehow completely missed turning on the position lights – I only noticed it after editing the video that they were off during the whole flight… At least the strobe lights were on. This happens when you record and re-watch your flights, you notice all the mistakes… Annoying, but educational.

On the way back to Charleroi we were given the option of flying a 10 mile long final, so we simulated a proper ILS approach too, which is unlikely to ever happen again in a small plane with a VFR flight plan at EBCI. We were lucky with the traffic, and it is always good if the controller knows you from YouTube ;) Thanks again for the experience!

So now I am night rated (or will be as soon as my paperwork gets processed), and I can fly as long as the conditions are VFR, no matter the time of the day. Cool! Staying with the subject of ratings, probably the relatively new BIR – Basic Instrument Rating – will be the next proper one for me, but definitely not in 2023. And for qualifications, the Diamond DA 40 will happen this year for sure. Likely in the first half of it. Maybe even the first quarter. We will see ;)

Beyond the PPL: first flights as a real private pilot

After finishing my PPL training, I just had to wait 3 weeks for my licence to arrive, and then – slightly unexpectedly – another 3 weeks for my radio licence (BIPT – Restricted radiotelephone operator’s certificate for aircraft stations) to be ready, I could finally book my first flight as a private pilot.

Originally I was thinking about going to Spa or even Breda, but at the end my time slot had to be cut down to two hours as a result of a forced reschedule, because one of our other planes did not get its parts for maintenance in time. So at the end I decided to just do a local flight around the CTRs of Charleroi and Chièvres, and visit some sights on the way, aiming to arrive back around sunset. The flight went perfectly fine, the conditions were nice and smooth, the lights were beautiful, the landing was good, and in general I was just very happy to be finally able to fly on my own, without having to do anything extra for it (like get signed off by an instructor). If you look at the video you will see that while now I use SkyDemon exclusively for navigation and planning (although I had a paper map as backup, I did not prepare the navigation on it anymore), I still had a printout of the navigation log (from SkyDemon) and I still crosschecked the printout with the actual data, and did, e.g., the well learned HAT flow before every turn.

After the success of the previous flight, now I really wanted to go to Spa next (since I still have not made a full stop landing here on my own), but luckily I still checked the NOTAMs in the morning, because the airport got limited to home-based aircraft for a few days in the last minute (for reasons unknown to me). No problem, since I had a backup plan: going international!

Continue reading

Road to the PPL: (flying) across the finish line!

While the pace of collecting flight hours have slowed down after I completed my required solo navigation flights with my long cross-country on the 23rd of March (see details in the previous post), there was still plenty of things to be taken care of in order to complete my PPL training: I had to pass the final progress test, pass the theory exam, get an English Language Proficiency Certificate, and finally pass the check-ride (a.k.a. the skill test, or practical exam).

I typically set aside one day a week for studying (even when flying to Girona for a few days of cycling holidays, I was busy reading on the plane), but then I typically studied 8-12 hours continuously.

Three weeks after the last solo navigation, I decided that it was time to fly again, and just booked a simple training with the goal of doing more soft & short field practice (having had only one full stop landing and take-off from a grass field until then). We decided to fly to Grimbergen (EBGB), where I got my first introduction to general aviation back in 2019 in the right seat of a Cessna 172, which gave me the last necessary motivation to start with the PPL training. Now I could also put this aerodrome in my actual logbook ;)

The flight [#30, on the 16th of April] was a bit bumpy, the soft field landing and take-off went better than the first time (but I knew that I still needed a lot of experience in this field [haha, field, get it?]), while the instrumental flying exercises were easy but fun. It was also good to fly with an instructor again, not only for the exercises, but also for the chat along the way.

Unfortunately I had some issues with the GoPro setup for this flight (when I fly with an instructor I always feel bad about spending time with the setup, so I made some mistakes with the external power supply), meaning that on the first leg the wing view camera died already around take-off, and on the return leg my main camera died before landing. And even the audio gain level was set a bit incorrectly… :( Anyway, the video is still worth watching ;)

After another month of studying, I wanted go for a flight just to keep my flying skills in order, and maybe refine the soft field operations a bit further with the same instructor as on the last flight. Unfortunately or not, the administration of my flight school thought that I had made a mistake in booking, and so they changed my flight to a Final Progress Check with a different instructor. Even though that was really not my intention, the idea of doing the PT3 got into my head, and thus I went along with the changed plans. Continue reading

Road to the PPL: all the way to the long solo cross-country.

As expected the winter months were – to put it mildly – not really optimal for flight training, so between my last flight on the 12th of November and the end of February I only got to fly twice (first on the last afternoon of the year, and then once in January).  But then the weather finally turned better, and I put exactly 10 hours into my logbook between the 26th of February and the 23rd of March, starting with passing my navigation progress test, and then going on three solo navigation flights, with the last one being the required long solo cross-country.

Now I have 54 hours and 12 minutes in my logbook (13h 24m as PIC – pilot in command, or simply put: flying solo), and only three flights (two trainings and a final progress test) remaining before my PPL checkride (the practical exam). “Unfortunately” I still need to pass the theory exam(s) first, but thanks to all the bad weather earlier this year, I have finally ticked off every module on the online learning platform, so it is only a matter of going through the theory books once more and then I will take care of that (plus there is also an English Language Proficiency exam too, but that should be a formality). But this means that now I need to take the remaining flights a bit slower, otherwise I will run out of flying before I am actually allowed to do the checkride…

Recently I added an extra GoPro to the cockpit to be able to include additional camera angles in my training videos (which of course made the editorial work significantly longer), and I finally started using my iPad Mini in an awesome FlyBoys PIVOT mount instead of my phone (for now just as backup, as I still have to use my paper maps for navigation…). Thanks to the popularity of my videos I was recognised by two different air traffic controllers on the radio during my last two flights, and simply by chance I was also photographed by plane-spotters a few times :)

Here is a list of my flights since my previous blog post:

Flight 24: After seven weather cancellations over the span of two months, I finally got to fly again on the last day of 2021. The weather was beautiful, albeit a bit windy, but nothing too bad so I could do another solo session. This time I stayed at Charleroi, and I only saw my instructor for five minutes for a signature, before I was left alone with the plane.

It was the first time I did a solo session without flying with an instructor first, so it was also the first time I started the plane and did the run-up unsupervised. It really felt like being a real pilot in command. The training was great, I got to fly both right and left hand circuits, I had to orbit a few times, and position myself in sequence on approach multiple times. At one point I was even asked to make a full stop landing before being cleared to take off again (to avoid the wake turbulence of a departing commercial jet), which I have never seen before.

Continue reading